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Article by Neill Barston | 17th February 2019

Homelessness: A Crisis On Our Doorstep

With ongoing pressure on social housing, homelessness remains a significant issue within the Canterbury district. INDEX examines some of the key matters, including an extension of the area’s main night shelter, Catching Lives, and Thanet’s Winter Shelter scheme, back for a third successive year

As one of the country’s most prosperous regions, the fact homelessness continues to remain such a prominent local social issue is a considerably concerning situation. But with relentless pressures on social housing and a decade of government austerity measures impacting on areas right across the country, there are major challenges and barriers to providing long-term solutions.

There are many causes to why people find themselves without permanent residences – from financial hardship suffering loss of employment, breakdowns in family relationships, or personal mental health issues that can lead to a damaging spiral of substance or alcohol abuse.

While the reasons are often multiple and complex, one thing is clear – it’s an issue which sadly shows little sign of being truly eradicated. Perhaps the most visible form of homelessness remains the category of rough sleepers who are forced into finding shelter in shop fronts and town/city centre public facilities, but there are also a number of ‘hidden homeless’ to consider, including so-called ‘sofa surfers’ relying on the good will of a variety of friends and acquaintances to put them up temporarily.

Charity collaboration

It’s a phenomenon affecting the entire country, and the Canterbury district is far from immune from the issue. The prominence of homelessness has led to campaigns from the city’s Labour group highlighting that rough sleeping in particular had doubled between 2010-2017.

According to Canterbury Labour MP Rosie Duffield speaking on the issue, “solutions had to be found” to tackle the matter, with concerns deepening surrounding the introduction of the government’s recently unveiled universal credit scheme. This replacement system for a number of social benefits including personal allowances has proved flawed, with time lags in delivering crucial funds to individuals and families.

However, Canterbury City Council has continued its efforts to assist those who are homeless in the district. It has invested significantly in increasing its levels of social housing, which lies at the heart of the matter. It also works closely with charities to provide assistance to those who are rough sleeping, through the Catching Lives night shelter, and Porchlight organisation.

Sadly, last winter proved a particularly cruel example of the harsh reality facing many homeless people, when a male client using facilities of the Catching Lives base near Canterbury East train station died after exposure to extreme weather conditions during ‘The Beast from the East’ in February and March. But as Mark Cowland, a trustee of the charity, explains, he believes the site is continuing to help save lives through providing invaluable night shelter services.

“I think the work we’re doing is important as there’s still very much a need for a focus on homelessness in the area. There are studies done each year as to the number of people on the streets, though we believe there are actually more people out there than are being recorded, up to around 48 people, which has meant all our volunteers are having to work even harder,” explained Mr Cowland, who added that the organisation had received some strong support from the district council.

He was hopeful that the government’s Homelessness Reduction Act of 2017 would help matters as this placed legal responsibilities on local councils to provide personal assistance to those who find themselves homeless. However, with funding for the country’s regional councils being cut dramatically over the past decade, charities have raised concerns over how much support will materialise.

As for Catching Lives, Mr Cowland praised its volunteers for invaluable work supporting its clients, ranging from cooking in its dedicated facilities, or providing wider supervision and even medical and practical advice in jobseeking for the broad range of individuals that pass through its doors.

“There’s a real sense of community here and we have a great team of volunteers. It’s going to make a real difference that we’re now going to be able to be open six months a year from October, rather than the three months that we’d be operating for previously,” added the director, who said it was concerning that homelessness remained such an issue, but he felt glad to be able to do his part in steering the organisation forward.

His colleague James Duff, a fellow trustee of the charity and centre supervisor, shared his admiration for the work being done at the shelter helping dozens of individuals. “I’d been a client here before and it was just a question of this place being here for me at the right time and I’ve found it rewarding going on to work here,” said James, adding: “All the help that we receive from donations is really important, whether that’s people leaving us a cheque for £1,000, through to a young lad who recently contacted us to say that he wanted to give us his pocket money.”

Meanwhile, Annie Harrison, who has volunteered over the past couple of years in the charity’s kitchen, said its work had been “brilliant” for homeless people, but urged further practical donations for basic kitchen equipment that is in high demand within the centre.

Council support

As part of Canterbury City Council’s efforts on supporting homeless people it received £220,000 from the Ministry of Housing for a range of projects, including providing a full-time rough sleeper coordinator to provide direct assistance to anyone they encounter sleeping on the streets.

The local authority’s most recent study last year with charities including Catching Lives and Porchlight found there were 33 people identified as vulnerable on the area’s streets. A total of 16 men and women were seen on the night of the survey at the end of last November and a further 17 people who were known about by other agencies.

This was almost half the figure found on a similar study the previous year, which found a total of 73 rough sleepers within the area. Assistance was sought from The Salvation Army, Kent Police and officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Vice-chairman of the city council’s Community Committee, Councillor Joe Howes, said: “Everyone recognises having one rough sleeper on our streets is one too many and there is still an incredible amount of work to do.

“In the past year, enormous efforts have gone into solving this problem by Catching Lives, Porchlight, the city council and MHCLG working together to make the most of the public’s donations and an injection of government cash after two successful bids by the city council totalling £550,000.

“This combination of funding is making a real difference to the lives of our most vulnerable people and we cannot afford for it to dry up now. Public donations to Catching Lives and Porchlight will help us to maintain this momentum.”

In addition, the recent allocation of £23 million investment by Canterbury City Council has enabled the purchase of 44 properties off Sturry Road in the city, which will be converted into 63 self-contained flats and houses for families seeking permanent housing.

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